When employment meets antitrust

Can employers be criminally liable for antitrust violations? According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), the answer is yes.

Violations of antitrust law in the employment context have made headlines in recent years, as the government has cracked down on “no-poach” and “salary-fixing” agreements between companies. Taking the issue increasingly seriously, the DOJ issued guidance promising to bring criminal charges against employers for such illegal conduct.

First, some background. From an antitrust perspective, greater competition among employers not only helps employees – who can negotiate for higher wages or better benefits between companies – but also benefits consumers more generally. Therefore, Section One of the Sherman Act prohibits employers from expressly or implicitly agreeing not to compete with one another, even for seemingly innocuous and beneficial reasons (like saving money).

Demonstrating the government’s interest in employment antitrust violations, the DOJ filed suit in 2010 against Adobe Systems, Apple, eBay, Google, Intel, Intuit, Lucasfilm, and Pixar, accusing the companies of promising not to recruit each other’s employees. While the cases resulted in consent judgments for the companies involved, the deals didn’t come cheap. Intuit, Lucas Films, and Pixar paid a total of $20 million to settle, while Adobe, Apple, Google, and Intel agreed to a $324 million settlement.

In 2016, the DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – the two federal agencies that share the responsibility to enforce the antitrust laws – released guidance to help employers avoid potential violations of federal law. The overriding message from the agencies: an agreement among competing employers to limit or fix the terms of employment for potential hires may violate the antitrust laws if the agreement constrains individual firm decision making with regard to wages, salaries or benefits, the terms of employment or even job opportunities.

The DOJ also vowed to proceed criminally against naked wage-fixing or no-poach agreements going forward.

“These types of agreements eliminate competition in the same irredeemable way as agreements to fix product prices or allocate consumers, which have traditionally been criminally investigated and prosecuted as hardcore cartel conduct,” the DOJ explained. If an investigation uncovers wage-fixing or no-poaching agreements, the agency “may, in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, bring criminal, felony charges against the culpable participants in the agreement, including both individuals and companies.”

To avoid facing jail time for an employment crime, businesses need to educate human resources professionals and employees responsible for hiring about the dangers of no-poach and salary-fixing agreements and establish a compliance program to avoid any errors.

Top on the “not to do” list: entering into agreements regarding the terms of employment with companies that compete to hire employees. This prohibition applies to all agreements, whether written or unwritten, spoken or unspoken. Even informal agreements – for example, where individuals at two competing companies agree that employees at a given position should not be paid above a certain amount or a particular range, or the individuals promise each other not to hire or solicit each other’s workers – are illegal.

It is important to remember that the prohibition on salary-fixing extends beyond simply what a worker is paid and includes other benefits as well, from transit subsidies to meals. If one HR professional wants to stop offering increasingly expensive gym memberships to employees and reaches out to other companies to ask that they stop offering gym memberships as well, that would likely violate antitrust law if the companies reached an agreement.

So-called “gentleman’s agreements” with other companies are equally illegal, even if they are unwritten and informal; nor does the use of a third party intermediary insulate an employer from liability under antitrust law, such as a situation where a group of nonprofits hire a consultant who communicates a “pay scale” to all the organizations to establish a wage cap.

Employers should also take care to avoid sharing sensitive information with competitors, which could serve as evidence of an implicit illegal agreement.

Even the mere suggestion of an illegal agreement may constitute an antitrust violation, despite the fact that an agreement is not reached. The FTC filed an enforcement action against an online retailer that emailed a proposal to a competitor that both companies offer their products at the same price. The competitor passed on the invitation and notified the FTC. Even though no agreement was reached, the “invitation to collude” was sufficient for the company to face legal action.

With salary-fixing and no-poach agreements on the government’s radar – and the threat of criminal charges and penalties looming – employers should make an effort to develop antitrust training and compliance programs before a problem arises.

August 25th, 2018|Employment Decisions, Lawsuit|

FTC files charges against operators of alleged high school diploma mills

The Federal Trade Commission (the “FTC”) filed complaints on February 10, 2016 against two operators of online “high schools” that claim to be legitimate but allegedly are diploma mills, charging anywhere from $135 to $349 for a worthless certificate.

Complaints in both cases filed by the FTC in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona charge that the operators bought several website names designed to appear like legitimate online high schools and used deceptive metatags with terms such as “GED” and “GED online” to bring the bogus sites higher in search rankings. Once consumers got to the sites, messages popped up implying that the diplomas offered were equivalent to an actual high school diploma.

According to the FTC’s documents, the “courses” amounted to four untimed and unmonitored multiple-choice tests, requiring that students answer 70% of each test correctly. For some “high schools,” when students failed to meet that standard, they were redirected to the test once more, and this time, the correct answers were highlighted so that the students could change their answers.  Other “high schools” provided students with an online “study guide” that also highlighted the correct answer for students to select when taking the test.

Upon completing the tests, the FTC’s documents charge that consumers were directed to a set of menus to evaluate their “life experiences,” where selecting that he/she knows how to “balance [a] checkbook” translates as credit for accounting coursework.  If a consumer says they “listen to music occasionally,” he/she may be given credit for a music appreciation course.

The FTC’s complaints in both cases point to numerous consumers who sought to use the diplomas to get jobs, apply for college and even join the military, only to find out that their diplomas were not recognized.

February 23rd, 2016|Fraud, Lawsuit|

Uber settles class-action for $28.5 million for misleading claims about drivers’ background checks

On February 12, 2016, Uber agreed to settle a consolidated class-action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (Philliben v. Uber Technologies, Inc. and Mena v. Uber Technologies, Inc.) by paying $28.5 million to approximately 25 million riders and promising to avoid using certain language in safety-related advertising, as well as the term “safe ride fee.”

In their complaint filed in 2014, the plaintiffs alleged that Uber’s claim of conducting “industry-leading background checks” for which they paid a “safe ride fee” of $1 to $2 on top of each fare, was false and misleading. According to the complaint, Uber does not and has never had an “industry-leading background check process.” To the contrary, the complaint stated that background screening by Uber does not involve fingerprint identification and, therefore, cannot ensure that the information obtained from a background check actually pertains to the driver that submitted the information. By contrast, most taxi regulators in United States require drivers to undergo criminal background screening, using fingerprint identification, and typically employing a technology called “Live Scan.”  Going forward, Uber said it will rename the “safe ride fee” as a “booking fee” which will be used to cover safety and additional future operational costs.

If the judge approves the settlement, members of the class who rode in an Uber vehicle in the United States between January 1, 2013 and January 31, 2016 will be eligible to receive a portion of the settlement.  If that pot is divided evenly among Uber’s 25 million passengers, after attorneys’ fees, each will get around $1.

Read the consolidated class-action complaint here.

February 23rd, 2016|Lawsuit|

Phony job applicants targeting employers to collect on FCRA violations

As we reported throughout the year, class-actions brought against employers under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) alleging hyper-technical violations are proliferating, with several resulting in multi-million dollar settlements.

But there appears to be a new development in this area. According to a National Law Review article, phony job applicants who have no intention of being employed with the targeted companies are submitting employment applications solely to position themselves as plaintiffs in class action litigation and potentially get a windfall settlement. The National Law Review article reports that the fake applicants typically fill out an online job application (usually with companies that have nationwide operations), sign the background check authorization, and then, after receiving an offer or rejection letter send a demand letter stating that the employer’s background check disclosure form or process does not comply with the requirements imposed by the FCRA and demand huge payouts to settle their claims  and avoid the filing of a class action lawsuit.

The FCRA provides for statutory damages ranging from $100 to $1,000 per violation for non-compliance with the FCRA’s notice and disclosure requirements, even where the plaintiff has suffered no actual harm or damag

December 22nd, 2015|FCRA, Lawsuit|

Securities class actions remain popular

For regulated entities, an enforcement action by a government agency is practically guaranteed to result in a parallel consumer class action.

Nowhere is that more clear than for publicly traded companies regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Securities class actions were considered to be so rampant that in 1995, Congress enacted the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (PSLR) to curb what the industry believed were abusive practices.

While the statute raised the bar for private enforcement actions, it certainly did not close the courtroom doors to plaintiffs. Although there are fewer suits brought today, complaints are still filed lockstep with an agency enforcement action and in significant enough numbers to keep companies on their toes.

Industry watchers predicted that a seminal case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last term, Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund (Halliburton II), would result in a decrease in class actions filed. That case involved a popular theory known as “fraud on the market,” where plaintiffs were not required to demonstrate that each individual class member relied on any allegedly misleading statements if the security at issue could be shown to be “efficient,” or with a market price reflecting all of its publicly available information.

While the Court did not toss the theory, the justices held that defendants can rebut the presumption prior to class certification. The June decision appeared to have little impact on the figures for 2014 filings. For example, NERA Economic Consulting reported that 221 securities class actions were filed last year, compared to 222 in 2013 and 212 in 2012.

Interestingly, although the number of complaints in securities class actions has not fluctuated much over the last few years, the aggregate amount of investor losses has declined, NERA found. 2014 saw a drop to $154 million from $159 million in 2013, down significantly from $243 million in 2012 and $248 in 2011. Are certain industries facing more lawsuits than others? NERA reported that one quarter of all of the securities class actions were filed against companies in the health technology and services area. Other major players: the finance industry, in second place with 19 percent of the suits, followed by the electronic technology and service sector with 13 percent.

Securities class action plaintiffs are also continuing a trend of settling prior to trial. Of all the pending and newly filed cases in 2014, just one lawsuit was actually tried to verdict (resulting in a plaintiff victory). Almost half of the cases ended on the defendant’s motion to dismiss (48 percent last year with an additional 21 percent dismissed in part), NERA found; 75 percent of the cases that survived settled prior to the class certification stage of litigation.

Read the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Halliburton II.

February 23rd, 2015|Lawsuit|

Trend of suing employers for technical FCRA violations continues

The threat of a multi-million potential class action lawsuit alleging technical violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) continues to haunt employers, even where the plaintiffs have alleged or proven no harm.

Pursuant to the statute, employers are required to “provide prior written notice before they can procure a consumer report about any employee or applicant for employment.” Just as important, 15 U.S.C. Section 1681b(b)(2)(A)(i) adds that the notice must be given “in a document that consists solely of the disclosure.”

Seeking to take advantage of the statutory damages available under the FCRA – from $100 up to $1,000 for a willful violation – plaintiffs have challenged employers’ use of a disclosure form that combined the written notice to procure a consumer report with other information or documents, such as an application form.

The trend to sue for FCRA technical violations was started by Singleton v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC in the U.S. District Court of Maryland (case no. 8:11-cv-01823-DKC) where the court ruled that inclusion of a liability release in the employer’s disclosure/authorization form violates the FCRA. Domino’s ended up reaching a settlement with the plaintiffs in 2013 for $2.5 million.

Also taking a strict reading of the statutory language, the Western District Court of Pennsylvania ruled in 2013 in Reardon v. Closetmaid Corporation (case no. 2:0S-cv-01730) that an employer could be liable for the combination of a disclosure/authorization with a liability waiver, and granted summary judgment in favor of the roughly 1,800 job applicants.

In a more recent example, a class of applicants sued Publix Super Markets in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee (case no. 3:14-cv-00720) also based on a violation of the sole disclosure requirement and release of liability. With Domino’s and Closetmaid’s payouts looming over its head and a class of 90,000, Publix agreed to settle the claims for $6.8 million earlier last year.

Although these companies opted not to fight the suits on their merits, a defendant in a case filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California (case no. 1:14-742-WBS-BAM) did and won dismissal in October 2014. Syed v. M-I LLC involved identical claims but the judge reached a contrary decision, finding that the FCRA text was not as clear-cut as the plaintiff claimed. Immediately following the subsection mandating the sole disclosure of the employer’s intent to procure a consumer report is a provision that states that the consumer’s authorization is to “be made on the document referred to in clause (i)” – “that is, the same document as the disclosure,” the court noted, and “…thus, the statute itself suggests that the term ‘solely’ is more flexible than at first it may appear…”

The Syed decision is the second one that may give hope to employers facing similar suits. (There are at least six class actions pending.) But the obvious answer for companies looking to avoid the problem entirely is simple: use a standalone disclosure/authorization form that is separate from any other information or documents.

January 29th, 2015|Employment Decisions, Lawsuit|

Class action charges LinkedIn with violations of FCRA

According to a new putative class action filed in California federal court, social networking site LinkedIn runs afoul of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

The plaintiffs claim that LinkedIn’s reference search functionality allows prospective employers, among others, to obtain reports on job applicants with profiles on the site. LinkedIn’s dissemination of “Reference Reports” – that are created based on a user’s profile and connections to form a list of former supervisors and co-workers as possible references – are available for users who pay a monthly or annual subscription fee.

“LinkedIn has created a marketplace in consumer employment information, where it sells employment information, that may or may not be accurate, and that is has obtained in part from unwitting members, and without complying with the FCRA,” according to the complaint, which noted the site has more than 300 million members and one million jobs listed.

The Reference Reports bring LinkedIn within the purview of the FCRA, and yet the company fails to comply with a host of statutory requirements, according to the complaint.

Specifically, the complaint alleges that the site violates Section 1581(b) by furnishing consumer reports for employment purposes without obtaining the certifications required by the statute or a summary of the consumer’s rights and also does not maintain any of the procedures required by Section 1681e(a) to limit the furnishing of consumer reports to the limited purposes of the statute. In addition, Section 1681e(b) mandates that all consumer reporting agencies follow reasonable procedures to assure the maximum possible accuracy of consumer report information, Section 1681e(d) requires that a user notice be provided to individuals when a report is provided about them, and Section 1681b states that reports can only be provided after an inquiry to ensure the report is used for a “permissible purpose.” None of these statutory requirements were met by LinkedIn, the suit alleges.

“[A]ny potential employer can anonymously dig into the employment history of any LinkedIn member, and make hiring and firing decisions based upon the information they gather, without the knowledge of the member, and without any safeguards in place as to the accuracy of the information that the potential employer has obtained,” Sweet and the other plaintiffs claim. “Such secrecy in dealing in consumer information directly contradicts the express purposes of the FCRA.”

The main plaintiff alleges that she located a job opening on the site and submitted her resume through LinkedIn. She received a notification from the site that the general manager of the employer had viewed her profile and she was offered the job after an interview. The general manager declined the plaintiff’s offer to provide a list of references but later called back to rescind the offer, telling her that he had checked some of her references and changed his mind.

The plaintiffs seek to certify a nationwide class of LinkedIn users who had a Reference Report run on them as well as a subclass of users who applied for employment via the site and had a Report generated by a potential employer. As for remedies, the putative class requests actual, statutory, and punitive damages, as well as attorney’s fees and costs.

To read the complaint in Sweet v. LinkedIn Corporation, click here.

December 3rd, 2014|Employment Decisions, Lawsuit|

FTC halts high school diploma mill

As the request of the Federal Trade Commission (the “FTC”), on September 16, 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida imposed a temporary restraining order to halt the business operations of Diversified Educational Resources, LLC (DER), and Motivational Management & Development Services, Ltd. (MMDS), and freeze their assets. The FTC’s lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction to stop the defendants’ deceptive practices and to return ill-gotten gains to consumers, which according to a preliminary review of bank records referenced in the lawsuit were more than $11,117,800 since January 2009.

The complaint alleges that the defendants violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting that the diplomas were valid high school equivalency credentials and that the online schools were accredited. The FTC charges that the defendants actually fabricated an accrediting body to give legitimacy to their diploma mill operation. DER and MMDS allegedly sold the diplomas since 2006 using multiple names, including jeffersonhighschoolonline.com, jeffersonhighschool.us, enterprisehighschool.us, and ehshighschool.org, which purport to describe legitimate and accredited secondary school programs such as “Jefferson High School Online” and “Enterprise High School Online.” The websites claim that consumers can become “high school graduate[s]” and obtain “official” high school diplomas by taking an online exam and paying between $200 and $300. In numerous instances, consumers who attempt to use their Jefferson or Enterprise diplomas to enroll in college, enlist in the military, or apply for jobs are rejected because of their invalid high school credentials.

September 19th, 2014|Employment Decisions, Fraud, Lawsuit|

Class-action against U.S. Census Bureau alleges race-bias in using criminal background checks

On July 1, 2014, a magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York certified as a class-action an unprecedented lawsuit brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that alleges the U.S. Census Bureau’s process of using criminal background checks when selecting temporary workers for the 2010 census unlawfully screened out approximately 250,000 African-Americans. Filed in April 2010, the complaint charges that in hiring nearly a million temporary workers, most of whom went door-to-door seeking information from residents, the Bureau erected unreasonable and largely insurmountable hurdles for applicants with arrest records, regardless of whether the arrests were decades old, were for minor charges, or led to criminal convictions.

July 9th, 2014|Judgment, Lawsuit|

Class actions against employers for violations of the FCRA are increasing

An auto parts company (CA USDC Case No. 2:14-cv-3470) and a hotel chain (CA USDC Case No. 3:14-cv-01089) are just the latest employers that have been slapped with class action lawsuits for alleged violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (the “FCRA”) charging willful non-compliance with the FCRA’s disclosure, authorization, and/or notice requirements. And the payouts in such lawsuits can be in the millions. Within the past three years, a national trucking company reached a settlement for $4.6 million, a national retail chain for $3 million and a national pizza maker for $2.5 million.

The FCRA allows an applicant or employee to bring a private right of action against an employer who negligently or willfully fails to comply with any of the FCRA’s requirements. Under the statute of limitations, an action must be brought by the earlier of (1) two years after the date of violation discovery by the plaintiff, or (2) five years after the date on which the violation occurred. The employer’s liability for negligent non-compliance is actual damages sustained by the applicant/employee, and reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs. A willful violation carries actual or statutory damages ranging between $100 and $1,000, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees and costs.

Below are general FCRA compliance reminders to employers when procuring and using background check reports prepared by a consumer reporting agency (“CRA”):

  • Provide disclosure to the applicant/employee in a standalone document that a consumer report may be obtained and used for employment purposes (language must be clear, with no superfluous information or liability waiver, and separate from the employment application);
  • Provide to the applicant/employee a summary of rights under the FCRA and applicable state notices;
  • Obtain the applicant/employee’s authorization for the consumer report;
  • Before taking adverse action based on the report (1) provide a pre-adverse action notice to the applicant/employee along with a copy of the report, and notices of rights, if not given previously, (2) wait a reasonable period of time (at least 5 days) before taking the adverse action, and (3) after deciding to take the adverse action, provide a notice that contains the FCRA required information, such as the name, address, and telephone number of the CRA that provided the report.
May 14th, 2014|Employment Decisions, Judgment, Lawsuit|